Life goes on

April 26, 2020 on 12:57 pm by Michael Grey | In From Piping Today Mag | Comments Off on Life goes on

I have my doubts that my dad was a big reader of the poet, Robert Frost. I do know that when it comes to life, what they learned is identical. I once asked Bill if he’d figured out the so-called “meaning” to life. With pipe in hand (he was among the last of the inveterate pipe smokers), he said: “It goes on.” Frost said these three words “sum up everything I’ve learned about life”. It’s mighty easy in a historic pandemic lockdown, as most of us are today – to think otherwise. With our common space radically reduced, our in-person social contact upended and not much to look forward to beyond supper, life goes on – barely. It grinds. Days blur.

I can feel the collective glare of my grandfather and uncles who, maybe like yours, fought in WWI and WWII, respectively. As I write now, to complain of being housebound, to sit, to wait, to “be apart so we can be together” feels a bit much, oppressive even. Think of bombing blitzes that blanketed many cities around the globe in WWII. Bombs dropping at night, rations, want and war. It takes a little something to even begin to compare then with now. But it never hurts to occasionally look back, and so take in context and, maybe, gain a better perspective of reality.

In my ongoing house-ridden way I found myself watching a short BBC mini-film: What Soviet Russia can Teach Us about a Pandemic. I’ve always been fascinated with things Soviet: from huge expanses of grey apartment blocks, massive collective farms and the KGB to long queues to buy just about anything. Soviet Russia seemed like a place on another planet. It was the film’s narrator, the singularly-named “Irina” who left me thinking when she said: “In Russia we lived through many crises and years of isolation so I start to compare the past and the present to cheer myself up.” Irina took comfort in recalling the sour crappiness of the old days – a sort of reverse nostalgia. Instead of seeking consolation in the wistful recollection of warm memories of another time – a very common human trait – Irina took the unsentimental approach. She counts her blessings. Social isolation with a full fridge and Netflix beats electrical brownouts and hunger any day.

Of course, a pandemic disease is not new to the world. Nor is a lockdown of the general public. Consider the plague in Italy and the city of Florence, particularly: “During the total quarantine of the Florentine population in early 1631, people were allowed to stand on their balconies or roofs from where they participated in mass or talked to people across the street or even sang” (Florence Under Siege, John Henderson, 2019). Many of us know first-hand the phenomenon of “balcony society” and the lengths a creative person, especially, might go to express themselves. Intimate performances of opera pieces, orchestral parts and – of course – tunes on the bagpipe have all been a part of our shared social isolation soundtrack.

In thinking of the strange situation of forced social isolation (and surely it’s weird) I took a page out of Irina’s book and looked to the past – to other horrible pandemics. The “Spanish flu” of 1918-19 saw more than 50 million people die worldwide. A quarter of the British population were affected. The death toll was 228,000 in Britain alone ( It’s hard to imagine just how awful life was during this battle-weary post-war period. With deprivation the norm and a veil of sadness surely coating life everywhere, how did people do it – just get on?

In these pandemic periods, it seems reasonable to me that we might look to creative people to better understand the question. The artist’s output, especially sensitive to environmental perceptions, stands as a gauge for the world that’s in their time and place. For instance, the Norwegian expressionist painter, Edvard Munch, even drew inspiration from the 1918 outbreak creating two famous pieces, “Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu” and “Self Portrait after the Spanish Flu” (happily he was to live another 35 years). Hermann Hesse, Jack London, Marcel Proust, A A Milne, Virginia Woolf and Compton MacKenzie are among the hundreds of authors who wrote and published during this period.

James Center (1875-1919) might be the piping world’s most famous loss to the Spanish flu crisis. In 1904 at Inverness, Center won the Gold Medal and Clasp on the same day. Still, beyond that feat, he left lingering evidence of creativity as manifested by Willie Ross and his classic jig, Center’s Bonnet. The third book of The Cowal Collection and The Pipes of War were both published in 1920, showing the inspired output of pipers during hard times, including composers like John MacLellan (Dunoon), G S McLennan and James Robertson – JR’s Farewell to the Creeks appears first in this 1920 edition of The Cowal Collection.

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